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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

No it is Not Works!

Jan 25, 2016

My thesis is simple: To urge people to love Jesus more, to obey him more fully, and seek for increasing holiness and godliness is NOT about working your way to heaven. It is NOT ‘works righteousness’. It is NOT legalism. It is NOT going back under bondage. It is NOT abandoning the gospel. It is NOT self-righteousness.

So let me tell you what it is: It is called sanctification. And without sanctification, there is no salvation. Indeed, without holiness, no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). This should be basic Christianity 101, and it is not all that difficult to understand.

But I hear this so often from rather confused believers that I have to keep going back to biblical basics to explain this over and over. Even though I have penned many pieces on this, I find that I need to do it once again. Striving to please God, obey God and become like him is not about relying on human works and effort to obtain salvation.

Yet I encounter this constantly, and I have lost count of the times theologically impaired folks have accused me of pushing works righteousness, or of being a legalist, or worse still for some, being a crypto-Catholic, because I dare to affirm the whole counsel of God, and to affirm the heart of the New Testament.

So let me restate as simply as I can the biblical understanding of all this. Salvation consists of at least two major aspects: justification and sanctification. The first is the initial, one-off work of God whereby we are pronounced not guilty and declared righteous because of the finished work of Christ at Calvary.

The latter is simply the outworking of that initial work of grace. The former is purely by grace through faith, while the latter is indeed a joint venture between God and me. We work together with God to actualise and live out that act of saving grace.

The many hundreds of imperatives (commands) found in the New Testament are there for a reason: once we are regenerated through the work of the Holy Spirit, we change, we put off the old man, we seek to be more Christlike, and we live a life of progressive transformation – that is, sanctification.

Just a few – of many passages can be appealed to here:

-Romans 12:1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.
-2 Corinthians 7:1 Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
-Ephesians 5:8-10 Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.
-1 Thessalonians 4:1 Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more.
-2 Thessalonians 2:13 But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.
-2 Timothy 2:21 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonourable, he will be a vessel for honourable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.
-1 Peter 2:2 Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.

Even a key justification passage like Ephesians 2:8-9 is immediately followed by a clear sanctification statement in verse 10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

And another vital passage which ties all this together is Philippians 2:12-13: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and do for His good pleasure.” There we see the truth of sanctification plainly stated: God is at work in us, but we are to work as well. Getting this straight will help us all avoid a lot of confusion and difficulty in this regard.

Now, are there nonetheless some people – perhaps many – seeking to earn their salvation by works and human effort? Of course. And do many people miss justification altogether, and confuse sanctification with how they get right with God? Sure. And was Luther right to stress that the just shall live by faith? You bet.

But going from one extreme to another helps no one here. If some people seek to work their way into heaven, the opposite extreme is no more helpful: the ‘let go and let God’ approach, where we sit back and do nothing, and just talk about “grace, grace, grace” all day. That is not how the Christian life works. We are saved by grace (justification) but then we cooperate with God for the rest of our lives in becoming more like him (sanctification).

So many great Christian teachers and scholars could be cited here concerning all this. Let me appeal to just one who does a good job of laying this out in a straightforward and easy to understand fashion. I refer to R. C. Sproul and his very helpful book, Pleasing God. I will finish with several useful quotes from it:

We remember that justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. The central affirmation of all Protestantism is that we are justified by faith and not by works. But the instant that true justifying faith is present in the life of the believer, the person begins to change. That change will be evidenced in a life that moves to obedience. Good works necessarily flow out of true faith. The works do not justify us. It is the righteousness of Christ that justifies us. But if the works do not follow, it is proof positive that we do not have genuine faith and are therefore still unjustified people.
There is no such thing as a carnal Christian in the antinomian sense. The concept is as perilous as it is self-contradictory. The peril is that people begin to think that all that is required to be saved is a profession of faith. But the Bible warns us that people can honour Christ with their lips while their hearts are far from Him (Matt. 15:8). They can say they have faith without truly owning what they claim to possess: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” (James 2:14). James answers his own question by declaring emphatically that such a faith is dead (James 2:17) and can save no one. (pp. 131-132)

One of the great distortions of the doctrine of sanctification may be found in the creed of quietism. Traditionally, quietism has referred to a kind of spiritual passivity that emphasizes divine activity and human inactivity. The popular slogan of quietism is, “Let go and let God.” The slogan has merit if it is intended to remind us that our spiritual progress cannot be achieved merely by our own efforts. Self-reformation is an exercise in futility if it proceeds without a dependence upon the grace of God (John 15:5). But there is a better way to express this dependence. Rather than “Let go and let God,” we ought to say “Hang on and trust God.
To be sanctified involves work – activity, not passivity. This is why the Apostle exhorts Christians to a life of work: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). Sanctification is cooperative. There are two partners involved in the work. I must work and God must work. . . . We are not called to sit back and let God do all the work. We are called to work, and to work hard.
If we live to please God, we must constantly remind ourselves that our effort is extremely important. Our salvation does not end when we are reborn. True, the Spirit does the work of regeneration by Himself. Regeneration is monergistic, not synergistic. I am passive when the Spirit does His work of quickening my soul. But then the work begins. I must work out my salvation. I must press toward the mark. Though the Spirit always helps us, we must work out our salvation.” (pp. 193-195)

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7 Responses to No it is Not Works!

  • From my Facebook in response to some rank antinomians.
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    One can never be more justified than the moment God declares him so. He is also then positionally sanctified in the sense of being irreversibly set apart and sealed against the day of final redemption. This external reality is ALWAYS accompanied by regeneration and a living faith. Which is the internal reality of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and new life in Christ.

    Personal sanctification is the inevitable lifelong though usually uneven progress of this internal reality working itself outward in word, thought and deed.

    Conversion would be this whole process that begins at justification and ends at the resurrection. (in a nutshell)

    Lazarus is the perfect illustration. He played absolutely NO part in raising himself from death to life. However, once raised, he DID walk outta that tomb. Had he laid there stiff and stinking with no heartbeat or respiration, NObody would have believed he had been raised and quite rightly so. There are certain universally present characteristics among the living. That this goes for new life in Christ just as well, is everywhere proclaimed in scripture.

    I do NOT preach works righteousness and neither do I lay undue, anti-gospel, legalistic burdens on anybody.
    My heartbreak is the false, Satanic, anti-Christian assurance being handed to multitudes that will have them shocked at the judgement seat when they find out some libertine anti (third use) nomian heretic told them they were justified despite the utter non existence of any biblical support for that claim.

    Ya’ll do what you want. You can bring me one thousand Dr. who and so seminary professors and you will never EVER overthrow what I have just said from Scripture. One more time. The Roman’s 7 war is the greatest evidence that one’s faith is living and true. A person not engaged in that war, yet with the name of Jesus on their lips is a liar and anyone aiding and abetting that lie will pay for their lies just like they will.

    1 Cor 5 absolutely COMMANDS this kind of judgement. For the good of the individual, the church and the reputation of the risen Christ. A person waging the Romans 7 war evinces new life in Christ. A man who tells me to f***off in Jesus name if I tell him that his affair with his secretary is sin is a false convert. At least he is to be treated as such at present or 1 Cor. 5 is a lie. I humbly challenge you to read the following: tiribulus.net/…/excommunication-in-1st…/

  • Bill, you’re right. Jesus told us to be holy, as our Father is, and to ‘obey’. I’ve often pondered over these instructions of His. “My sheep hear My voice” He also said. Where do the 10 commandments come into the practice of obedience and specifically the 4th? This isn’t a trick question – it just keeps me pondering.

  • I think James nailed it down fairly well. Especially so considering that the author was most likely the leader of the Jerusalem church, probably a (half) brother of the Lord, converted after the resurrection, writing the epistle bearing his name before any of the other books of the NT were written and sought out by Paul in his early days.
    With his assertions in Ch. 2, surely he means that faith and works are intended to be mutually intrinsic.

  • Yeeeeeeees. This has to be the No 1 reason Christendom is wimpy in the west. I call it the “scraping into heaven mentality”.
    Paul spelled all this out in detail, but unlike ancient Romans, Corinthians and Ephesians, modern man is too dumb to follow Paul’s logic.
    So is this simple enough for the urban intellect?
    1. We get into heaven by repenting and receiving Jesus.
    2. We are then commanded to store up treasure in heaven.

    So the mentality of NOT bothering about the “store up treasure” thing is not only disobedient, it also results in being a heavenly pauper – with nothing to show for your life. If that is all that Jesus died for, getting into heaven, then we should get people saved and immediately shoot them. And following this bent logic, we should also promote abortion, since those little souls are almost certainly heaven-bound. They also had no chance to build any treasure either – a horrifying thought.

    So, we should realise then, that God is willing to risk our eternity (i.e. hell) for the opportunity to store up treasure in heaven. So there must be a lot more to it than some shiny stones in a tiara

    This all assumes, of course, that storing up treasure in heaven is explained in the Sermon on the Mount – giving our life away to serve God and others. Since hell does not discriminate between lazy servants and non-servants, Christians who don’t care about treasure in heaven might as well live it up and become hedonists. Oh, wait, already happening…

  • “perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” How much more clear do people want it? How can someone truly born again even want to continue in sin which the inddwelling Holy spirit hates? That is of course an ongoing process and God is patient enough to give us plenty of time for prayer and revelation to make itself known and expressed in our life. I see the faith and works question a little like the pheno type and the genotype in biology. We can not see the genes which carry the phenotype of the physical expression of those genes eye colour etc. and neither can we see the faith by which people do the work they do. If our works are not based on true faith, their expression will show in arrogance, self righteousness etc. But if our works are the results of true faith they will accompanied by love and humility and the desire to glorify God in what we do
    Someone once said to me “show me the commandments you keep and I tell you what God you worhsip.”
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • 1 Cor. 6:11 is Pauls’ apostolic counsel to his people in the light of this problem, see preceding verses. “But you were washed; but you were sanctified; but you were justified in the name of the Lord, Jesus, the Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” The order here usually being ignored, suggests to me the reason many Christians get fussed over legalism in sanctification on the one hand and opt for “quietism” or antinomianism on the other. Cleansing, sanctification (some say ‘positional’ but this is personally by the Spirit of our God) and justification – this latter seems to be the goal of Jesus and the Spirit in the Fathers’ will in the life of His elect sons, are all by faith which itself is the gift of God. This verse tells us total grace is prior to faith and faith in what God has done is the way of grace by which the just – (ified) shall live separated from this present evil age! Or to change the wording on sanctification John preaches ‘Hope holiness’ “those who have this hope (within) themselves sanctify themselves.” When we really see what God has done on the Cross we know the real power of and for sanctification. Hence Pauls’ determination to preach “the Word of the Cross” the power of God to cleanse, sanctify and ultimately in the Day of Christs’ appearing those of faith will be found to have been justified by His grace forever. How can I be just and not holy? How can I be holy and not clean? How can I be a believer and it not be by the astounding grace of GOD? How can I know this grace but by the death of the Cross of the risen Lord, Jesus? Jesus keep me near the Cross…

  • Some people only use the parts of the Bible that makes them feel good. It takes the whole Bible to make it to Heaven. Works do not get us to Heaven but after we are truly saved if we do not do all God tells us to do we will not make it to Heaven!

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